In 1914 Thomas Ince initiated a cycle of Japanese stories starring Tsuru Aoki and Sessue Hayakawa, as I outline in my biography of Ince. However, not all of the Aoki-Hayakawa films told of Japanese or Asian subjects; they were also cast as Native Americans, such as THE VILLAGE NEATH THE SEA (Domino, 1914).
THE LAST OF THE LINE (reissued as PRIDE OF RACE) (Domino, 1914), directed by Jay Hunt from a story by Ince and C. Gardner Sullivan, tells of the final Sioux chief in two reels. Chief Gray Otter, played by Inceville Soux William Eagleshirt (billed as Joe Goodboy to the press) recalls his son's birth as he returns from his government education, so "the white man's wisdom shall be an open book to him." Tiah (Hayakawa) has learned the wrong lessons; he arrives intoxicated, turning into a renegade and assaulting an Indian maiden by the river. Despite his father's pledge of peace, Tiah leads an attack on the army paymaster. Before he can complete the raid, the chief shoots his son, and claims that he died defending the paymaster, so Tiah can be buried with honor.
In THE DEATH MASK (Kay-Bee, 1914), reissued as THE REDSKIN DUEL, Aoki and Hayakawa this time costar as full-fledged romantic leads. Although there is an evident racial distinction of the stars from the supporting players, all apparently actual American Indians, the contrast does not jar the characterizations and narrative.
Hayakawa plays Running Wolf, the unmarried brave of one tribe, who learns about another band a long distance away. Glimpses of the two tribes reveal their distinction, one well-clothed and plainly civilized, the other nearly naked in their violent dances. This tribe is led by three savage brothers; two impersonate a panther and a bear, while the third brother's face is never seen, hidden behind a terrifying "death mask." Regarded as tabu, he requires that he be brought offerings of food by others in the tribe. However, "with them dwells their sister, of whose beauty men sing from the lakes to the sea." Aoki as the maid is initially presented far from them in charming medium shot, establishing her beauty as she emerges from brush into the sunlight, her arms stretched out, one hand over heart. "Many young men have come to woo her; none have returned." All have died at the brother's hands.
The maid, distracted by playing with rabbits in the hills, fails to notice rain brewing. She and Running Wolf accidentally meet in an abandoned cabin during a rainstorm. Although she is the "maid of his dreams," Running Wolf, to avoid any hint of impropriety, promptly moves outside. A few minutes later, she gives up her shelter, fleeing the cabin, establishing the determination of both to avoid any possible hint of dishonor. Arriving later at the tribe, Running Wolf defeats two of the brothers in combat. The brother in the death mask flees in apparent cowardice, to the dismay of his fellow tribesmen. They pursue him angrily, but Running Wolf reaches him first. Removing the mask reveals the third brother is the maid. Her brothers compelled her to impersonate a man in addition to her own status. Running Wolf saves her from the tribe, and love triumphs.
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